Ryszard Kapuściński’s Imperium

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Back in 2008 I read Ryszard Kapuściński’s Travels with Herodotus, the travelling tales of the Polish journalist whose adventures proved, once again, that less is often more. His expense account was as threadbare as the Soviet-era Polish economy and he made up for it by ingenuity and getting far closer to his sources than any gold-plated credit card would have allowed.

His unfailing ability to be there – wherever there might be – when things were going seriously wrong was illustrated in Another Day of Life, his account of Angola in 1975 as it descended into chaos. Travelling through Southeast Asia writing the first edition of Lonely Planet’s Southeast Asia on a Shoestring one year earlier I’d visited Portuguese Timor, another Portuguese colony about to become a disaster zone.

Imperium is Kapuściński’s Soviet trek from Russian troops arriving in his hometown in Poland (today it’s in Belarus) in 1939 through to journeys across Siberia and the Central Asian republics in the ‘50s and ‘60s and finally long treks across the whole continent-wide swathe of the ‘Imperium’ as the whole thing crashes and burns in the early ‘90s. It’s often a terribly depressing tale, much of it driven by the horrors of Stalinism as huge numbers of innocent victims are shipped off to Stalin’s Siberian death camps or starved to death in the Ukraine. I read Imperium just before I set off to visit Belarus and if I’d had a little longer I’d have travelled down to Pinsk, purely to visit Mr Kapuściński’s hometown.

The book features a detailed account of Stalin’s destruction of the huge Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow.